After my daughter Sierra and her fiance Eben hiked the entire Colorado Trail this past summer, a total of nearly 500 miles across the Rockies, Eben requested that I show him my Continental Divide Trail multi-media show as a Christmas present for him. I wasn’t excited. It had been over a half dozen years seen I had shown it and who knew if it was even possible.
When my 6th book, “Scraping Heaven” came out in 2003, I had many speaking engagements, from universities to hiking club banquets, to wellness conferences etc. We even had a special gig we performed at elementary schools where we brought a llama right into the auditorium, showed them how we packed their panniers, went through the gear that enabled our family to survive in the wilderness for months at a time (Cheryl Strayed, you ain’t got nothing over us!), talked about how a childhood spent in the wilderness impacted our children (The “No Child Left Inside” poster kids) and basically presented a family lifestyle choice that is so completely foreign to every other American family. Spending your formative years in the lap of wilderness is a novel way to grow up.
We brought our kids along to every show. Our audiences wanted to see and meet them, even ask them a question of two about how the experience impacted their lives. They never complained at all the shows. They enjoyed watching themselves grow up on the big screen, let alone relive wonderful memories. I wasn’t aware of how seeing the slide show would impact them, ten years later, when they saw it again, nor me.
Preparing to show my slide show felt monumental. My studio needed to be cleaned up of Christmas presents, my painting easel moved, and on and on. My CDT show is old school…two Kodak Carousel projectors with a dissolve unit that has a knob that is manually turned to fade in and out. All 8 songs in the show had their own timing. I wasn’t sure the 4 Carousels of slides were not ripped apart leaving behind empty slots which would show up as a brilliant white screen. I did not want to search for the missing slides if there were any. I have dozens of Carousels of shows that were put together for various audiences, besides slide boxes, envelopes, stacks on the light table I would have to look through. I am not an organized person.
I had no idea if the cassette tape will pull, if we even have a ghetto blaster somewhere that accepts cassettes. And the light bulbs, costing $35 a piece. I wasn’t even sure if there were bulbs in the projector and if the ones were broken or not.
Then, I wasn’t interested in practicing my timing. It was enough I was taking the time to even dig the equipment out. Carrying it all down the steps, moving furniture, setting up the projector screen, super imposing the slides on top of one another, trying the music, I had huge doubts that I could pull it off. I would try. That’s all I was promising.
Thankfully, a few weeks earlier, my son Bryce was interested in seeing if we could get Todd’s teenage sound system working. (Since our only portable tape player only accepted CD’s not cassettes) He wanted to buy his girlfriend a vintage-looking record player as a Christmas present and wanted to hear a few of our LP’s. When Todd pulled out the turntable to see why the speakers had no sound coming out of them, he found a mouse nest with dehydrated infant mice in it- guess the mama got dead in a trap. Bryce was grossed out and almost abandoned the quest. But we got the turntable, receiver and speakers working so that hurdle was leaped in the quest to put on the CDT slide show.
The stars were lined up. I found the correct Carousels, had two working projector bulbs, only one Carousel had about 6 missing slides which we could deal with, and the tape player worked. I put the tape on to roll through and just re-acquaint myself with the music as I did the dishes and tidied up the house. But I was shocked to what occurred as soon as I heard the music.
I began to cry. And cry harder. I couldn’t believe it. Sixteen years since we have finished the CDT, 21 years since we began, the memories came flooding back. The music brought back so many memories. When I put the show together so many years ago, I chose moody music that would also move my audiences emotionally. I used “Dances with Wolves” soundtrack to Andean pan pipes to Irish jigs. The music brought back memories of Yellowstone, crossing Wyoming’s Great Divide Basin, Glacier, being together as a family and on and on. I kept busy in the house and moving. No one noticed the tears streaming down my cheeks.
Sierra was upstairs with her fiance when the tape went on, and she too was impacted. Eben yells down, “Sierra lit up as soon as the music came on.”
Lit up. Good word choice.
The one projector’s fan screeched. “This is vintage.” Bryce exclaimed when the show began to roll and no one could believe that I had most of my timing down perfect. The kids kept saying, “Oh my God, I remember that. That was so cool and began reliving wonderful stories as the slides faded by.
It was so impacting seeing that show, spanning 5 summers of my children’s early lives. Seeing their happy smiling faces as they crossed high passes in Glacier; Bryce dancing down the trail as Todd held his little hand in his, Sierra talking to her llama Berrick, storms, campsites, river fords, so many memories, over 3,000 miles of memories and 5 summers. Some of the most important moments of our lives were being relived on that lit up screen. The strongest feeling we were all left with was how very happy we were out there. Much more than happiness- outright joy.
How could my children’s childhoods be over so quickly? Sierra is getting married in 2015 and much of the talk over the holidays at our home revolved around wedding plans. Their childhood is over.
During this holiday season, our family of 4 long distance backpackers also went to see Cheryl Strayed’s movie “Wild.” The two highly seasoned LD hikers (Todd & I) had different things to say about the film than the two “children.” But it got our wheels turning.
Under the Christmas tree were two sets of trekking poles, believed by nearly all LD backpackers to positively help you backpack better and more efficiently, as in taking ½ a mile an hour off your time, as well as assist your knees and other body parts in taking the blow of descending etc. We are going to embrace “lightweight gear” as much as we can. I am not willing to be cold and wet, however just to carry an extremely light pack as opposed to laboring under 40-50-60 pounds. (I once labored under 70 pounds as I climbed Mt Whitney and headed into the snow-smothered, inaccessible trail for over 225 miles on the John Muir Trail.) But in the future, I will attempt to achieve a balance. We do want to long distance hike again. (For those of you who do not personally know our history, we have been long distance cycling and paddling these last 10 years as well as world traveling- I have been to 39 countries). But we miss the long trails. We can thank Cheryl Strayed for reminding us of that. And my CDT slide show.
The plan is to hike the John Muir Trail in 2015 as a family. Bryce just announced that he’d like to hike the whole PCT in the next few years. I was quite surprised. I said,
“That would be good. It would be good for you.”
And he said, “It would be good for anyone, wouldn’t it?”
Yes it would son, even for two 10,000+ milers who are 50 something (with one to be 60 next year). I ought to do something to usher in the next decade right. Maybe re-hike the PCT in big chunks starting with the John Muir Trail, Todd suggests.
Long distance hiking would be good for anyone. Seeing “Wild” and reliving my CDT slide show for the up and coming new member of the family illustrated that. But then again, this family already knew that.
“Watching the slideshow of our hike across the CDT/Colorado Trail, was in many ways, a double return to my childhood. Memories of the trail, riding my llama, the rich smell of crisp mountain air and the approach of thunderstorms were lifted from my memory. At the same time, I was brought back to the decade afterward that I followed those memories around to slideshow and talk after slideshow and talk that my mother gave. The repetition somehow made the memories richer, deeply embedded them inside of me, and that part of me ached and came alive again as the pictures flashed across the screen. Although I was a child, somehow it feels like yesterday.”
“It has been a couple of decades since I kicked back in my dad’s child carrier backpack, and he carried my diaper-clad bum over the Rockies. 17 years have passed since we finished up the Continental Divide, as I graduated from backpack to llama, to tandem bicycle. Since then I have graduated from a string of other accomplishments, including Tyler School of Art in Philadelphia, and the CDT has been placed on the back burner of my memories.
Watching the fluttering light of the projector, I entered a time warp. Each slide seemed to recover a submerged memory, sending me deeper with the rhythmic clicking of the slide carousel. It was a stirring experience. Sierra and I laughed at the images of us dancing impishly on riverbanks, and marveled at the sweeping beauty somehow captured in the pre-digital era. We noticed subtle changes we had never noticed before, the grayness creeping into Dad’s night-black beard.
Now, 20 years whiter but no less of a mountain man, Dad manned the tape cassette player, grumbling as he punched at the dials. (because he couldn’t see the dials w/o his reading glasses) Sierra and I remembered the songs from when we joined Mom at presentations; they felt like the soundtrack to our childhood. Mom still had the pacing timed with precision. As the final melody concluded, we cheered, though we were reluctant to leave the Rockies behind and return to 2014. I was reminded of the song The Circle Game, where Joni Mitchell sings “we’re all captive in a carousel of time.” Certainly my childhood is imprisoned on my Mom’s dusty slide carousel, but it’s nice to know I can revisit the flickering memories whenever I choose.”